In many respects, this little offering from Julian Barnes might be considered a something and nothing type of novel. Of course, the novel and the subsequent film interpretation were both exquisitely delivered. But with the pressing issues of the day bearing down on humanity extreme poverty, extreme and growing inequality, extreme, possibly existential environmental destruction just to mention a few, you might think that our Mr Barnes might have something a little more pertinent, a little more contemporary to busy himself with. But no. Our worthy Mr Barnes chooses to explore the life of a late middle aged, middle class Englishman who has some unfinished romantic business to unravel. Scintillating stuff. On first reading it certainly seems a tad indulgent to say the least. And yet, give yourself a little time to ponder this work and you can’t help but conclude that Barnes might just have something rather important to say about the human condition.
Having experienced two youthful suicides, one involving his best school mate, the main protagonist concludes towards the end of the story that his main achievement in life has simply been to survive. It doesn’t sound much of a legacy and certainly we are led to believe he has led a life most ordinary.
What did I know of life, I who had lived so carefully? Who had neither won nor lost, but just let life happen to him? Who had the usual ambitions and settled all too quickly for them not being realised? Who avoided being hurt and called it a capacity for survival? Who paid his bills and stayed on good terms with everyone as far as possible, for whom ecstasy and despair soon became just words once read in novels?
Unlike his school friend who he idolised for his intellectual insights, our protagonist has merely limped along the middle road. What are we to make of this conclusion? It seems at first glance to be a rather banal and sad sort of admission yet for the majority of the world’s citizenry survival might be considered achievement aplenty. And I’m not just talking about survival in a material sense. For those of us fortunate enough to have had the basics of life more or less guaranteed, there are still pitfalls by the bucket-load to keep us on our toes. And the greatest pitfall of all is to keep some sort of mental equilibrium. In an increasingly pressure-cooker type of world, that is no easy thing.
Statistics tell us that at least one in four of us in the developed world will suffer at least one bout of mental ill-health in our lifetime. The figure may well be much higher. We try to keep the demons at bay with an exotic cocktail of booze, proscribed and illegal drugs and the usual basket of over the counter medications. Add to that the intoxicating mix of sex and rock and roll and countless other distractions and we just about get by. Sometimes. But whatever we do, the existential ghosts are hovering. Young or old, rich or poor, the dark demons have us in their sights. And they pounce when you least expect it.
For me, The Sense of an Ending, both novel and film, cleverly tap into those demons with a quiet but unsettling power. Suicide or survival? To live fast or to live steady. To fly high or to just stumble along. These are the questions that all of us, at some time or other, are forced to ask ourselves. And of course, there are no definitive answers.
Automation is on its way. Only a fool would deny it. And it will change everything. The one thing that really helps us to keep our feet on the ground is work. But if automation wipes out the world of work we will have to rethink everything. Its a coming problem but one I doubt that most of us can even begin to comprehend. Nothing to get up for. Nothing to fill in the hours of the day. Nothing to stress about. Nothing to succeed or fail in. Just intelligent robots who might even become full conscious beings. And it’s all coming to a town and city near you. So, in this brave new world what will survival actually mean? Will suicide rates go through the roof? Will our sense of meaning and purpose evaporate before our very eyes? Suicide or survival might become the central equation not just for the few but for the many. Simply surviving with a mental equilibrium might be achievement enough. Whether he intended it or not, Barnes award winning novel might just help us ponder the meaning of our own little lives, both in the present tense and in the troubling days that are to come.